Two Horrific Bay Area Crashes Highlight Need for Faster Action

Fulton Street in Berkeley near where Schwarzman was severely injured while cycling. Image from Google Street View.
Fulton Street in Berkeley near where Schwarzman was severely injured. Image from Google Street View.

Megan Schwarzman, 42, a research scientist at the Berkeley School of Public Health, was riding her bike southbound on Fulton Street near Bankcroft Way on Tuesday around 5 p.m. when she was hit and dragged under a car driven by Berwick Haynes, a Sunnyvale resident. Haynes remained at the scene and was later arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs, according to reports. Schwarzman’s injuries were so severe that the Berkeley Police sent its “Fatal Accident Investigation Team.” Fortunately, Schwarzman is expected to live, reported Berkeleyside, an independent news site.

It’s difficult to see what, if anything, Schwarzman could have done to ride more safely. Reportedly, she was wearing florescent green safety gear, a helmet, and she had lights on her bike. She was struck from behind. There’s no way anyone can call this an “accident,” given the conditions on Fulton—its design encourages dangerous speeds and provides no protection for cyclists.

According to the Daily Californian citing data from the California Highway Patrol, there were ten reported bicycle-versus-motor vehicle collisions at the intersection of Fulton Street and Bancroft Way from 2001 to 2014. Meanwhile, Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates has declared that he wants to make Berkeley the most bike-friendly city in the US.

Then why do such conditions persist? It wasn’t a cost issue: the city repaved Fulton last year. “We asked them to put in bike lanes and got our usual response that they need to do a traffic study,” said Dave Campbell, Advocacy Director for Bike East Bay. “We were told both would take time and they didn’t want to delay the paving. It would have been very easy to do.”

Campbell said it’s a problem endemic to Berkeley and other cities: the paving engineers work in a different department from the city planners. Putting protected bike lanes on Fulton “was in the 2000 bike plan. It was in the 2005 bike plan. It was in the 2010 downtown plan — every five years the city says ‘yes, do this’ and then they repave without doing it,” said Campbell. He hopes that with the end of CEQA’s car-centric “Level of Service” (LOS), things might improve, but he’s fears the foot-dragging and excuses will continue.

Meanwhile, in San Fracisco, Market Street claimed another life. 38-year-old Thu Pham of Berkeley was fatally struck on Friday morning by a white Ford sedan making an illegal turn as Pham crossed at 7th. Pham was in a wheel chair. “The turn restrictions here were implemented by the Safer Market Street project. It’s important to note that the entire approach left lane is blocked off and signed as restricted,” explained Ben Jose, a spokesman for SFMTA, and private cars are not permitted to make that turn.

“We need to understand why he turned,” said Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF. “There are certain things that aren’t correctly cuing drivers and we need to know what they are as the city designs the streets.” She stressed that, as with the incident in Berkeley, the “answer is engineering. Market Street needs to be safe for people with disabilities, seniors and children. That has to be our baseline treatment.”

One wonders, however, how it can be safe for trucks to turn left, but not cars. Ferrara said that exception was a compromise to build consensus for Safer Market. Without that compromise, perhaps physical obstructions could be installed to make those left turns difficult to make.

It seems politicians, business interests, and the different city agencies are often quick to find reasons to compromise safety and delay improvements. The tools are there to fix our streets and there are proven designs to copy. “There is no mystery here,” said Campbell. “We know how to do it.”

With LOS gone, perhaps there needs to be legislation that holds individual leaders inside bureaucracies responsible when foot dragging and avoidable compromises on safety are linked to deaths and serious injuries. Because clearly, our streets are not getting fixed fast enough.

  • Gene

    Most of the new turn restriction signs on Market have been hung before the intersection, where there are less noticeable than signs hung across an intersection. Plus they are barely enforced — I see several violations every single day with nary a cop in sight.

  • Chris J.

    This is so sad. When will leadership stand up and say “enough is enough”? Why do I always get the feeling that people think this is okay? Safety and life should be the top priority, not the third, fourth, or whatever it currently is.

  • DrunkEngineer

    In 2012, there was also a bicycle fatality near the Bancroft/Fulton intersection, when a UC professor was run over by a dump truck. How many more have to be killed and injured before Berkeley staff does anything about the intersection?

  • gneiss

    As this article alludes to, much of the blame for the lack of movement on installation of bicycle infrastructure lies with how California towns and cities split responsibilities for planning and construction. Many communities have planning departments with talented and dedicated professionals. They provide outreach services to the communities and are the one who work with local citizens and architects to devise the bicycle plans and streetscape designs. They are the ones who you see whenever you go to meetings that present lots of pretty pictures. Typically, there are not very many engineering professionals in planning departments, mostly you have people who have degrees in city planning and development.

    Then you have the Public Works or Traffic Departments. They are the ones who patch potholes, repave streets, maintain the sewer lines, manage streetlights, paint pedestrian lines, install curb ramps, put up all the MUTCD signs, and do most of the physical work. The leaders of these departments include the traffic engineers (all with P.E. at the end of their names) and are generally very conservative. When they get plans from the planning department for lanes reductions or bicycle lane installations, they will run models to determine the potential LOS at intersections and will typically reject streetscape changes based on unacceptable car traffic dwell times. These professional are typically out of the public eye and interact only with the leadership of the towns and cities when they submit their budgets. They don’t go to public outreach meetings and are not involved in redesigning streets.

    As a result of this bifurcation in responsibilities and coupled with lack of public accountability and general conservatism from traffic engineers, you have poor communication between these teams. This generally means that planning only rarely makes it onto the streets particularly for those where car LOS is considered to be a paramount concern. As far as the traffic engineers go, they will argue that it’s not their fault, it’s that people are bad drivers, or drunk, or don’t follow the rules (speed limit signs, traffic signals, etc.). They will point to how the injury and fatality rates are low when you consider the number of vehicles are moving on those streets rather than considering the per capita or absolute number. The end result is that people who aren’t in cars get marginalized and disproportionately die on city streets.

  • Charles Siegel

    The picture does not show that there are two lanes of southbound traffic immediately north and south of here. It becomes three lanes for just a little more than a block. The three lane section is purely to allow two lanes on Fulton to make left turns onto Durant, and so few cars make turns onto Durant that it obviously is not needed.

    No one with common sense could think that a traffic study is needed to make this stretch two lanes, like the rest of the street, and to have left turns onto Durant from one lane instead of from two.

    This should be done immediately with no excuses from staff. Initially, they can just stripe the bike only lane. When there is funding, they can create a physical barrier with some landscaping.

  • AlanTobey

    Further south on Berkeley’s Fulton Street (beyond Dwight Way), two lanes of one-way traffic favoring PM commuters gave the street the nickname “Fulton Freeway.” Years of public advocacy turned this back into a quiet two-way neighborhood street. The block of Fulton where the accident occurred is actually an extension of Oxford Street, a four-lane bidirectional road forming the traditional western border of the UC campus.

    There is not enough traffic on ANY of the section, even in commute hours, to support any more than a single lane in each direction. The recent opening of the relocated Berkeley Art Museum at Oxford and Center, which is now one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the city, now creates even more incentive to make this a safer less car dominated stretch of center-city roadway.

  • Bike East Bay

    Bike East Bay’s response to Megan’s crash, and our ask for the City of Berkeley to immediately stripe bike lanes on this wide, two-block stretch of Fulton Street. And thank you Chuck Siegel for pointing out that this street widens right where Megan’s crash occurred, a unnecessarily wide street for moving more cars and trucks.

    https://bikeeastbay.org/news/bike-east-bays-response-megan-schwarzmanns-collision

  • Kindryth

    Thank you gneiss. Enlightening information.

  • berkeleyish

    Thank you for this great follow-up letter. I hope they heed your requests re: Fulton bike lane and also wuarterly coordination meeting b/w planning, public works, and bike east bay. Keep up the good work.

  • calwatch

    This is absolutely not true in larger agencies. Specifically, Berkeley recently posted a job in the engineering department to cover active transportation, which is a PE job. Public Works departments are doing lots of outreach and are often seen at the same meetings that the planners go to. The conservativism is necessary because engineers are focused foremost on safety, and need to implement designs, while almost nothing a planner will do will kill anyone.

    Both planners and engineers are accountable to the same people – the elected officials. It you want change, start with them and tell them to set the priorities that you want. If your planning head or public works director is recalcitrant, get the community to speak out against that individual, as goals are set from the top. But stoking this engineer/planner divide is very unproductive.

  • Wait a minute, there have been numerous instances to install a bike lane that the City punted on and now someone got hurt? That sounds like the perfect opportunity for a lawsuit. As much as I hate to see them happen since it takes up public resources, they’re obviously still sometimes necessary to address problems that agencies can’t seem to get right on their own.

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